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White-Ground Lekythos
Period: Attributed to the Painter of Athens 1826, circa 460-450 BC
Culture: Greek
Material: Terracotta
Dimensions: 24.4 cm H
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This splendid vessel is attributed to the master hand of the so-called Painter of Athens 1826 who is known to have been active in the city in the middle of the fifth century BC. Characteristic of his work is the use of a second white, brighter than the white colour of the background, to highlight particular aspects of the composition. In accordance with the function of the vase – a container for oil in rituals – the decoration has a minimalist flavour, which adds to its charm. The male figure, who represents the shadow of the deceased, wears a red himation (cloak). He faces a young woman wearing a short chiton (tunic). In between, the artist has skilfully recorded further details of archaeological and historical interest, including a stele, around which the young woman ties ribbons to honour the memorial. The vase is decorated with a meander below the rim of the shoulder. On the underside of the foot is a graffito comprising the Greek letters xi and epsilon, which is most likely a ‘trademark’, made by a merchant as a notation of price, batch number, or shipment number. The shoulder is beautifully decorated with black palmettes and pomegranates, and the black-glazed neck is a charming complement to the black-glazed foot.

The role of white-ground lekythoi in funerary and commemorative ritual is made clear both by their excavation from cemeteries and their depiction, invariably on lekythoi themselves, standing or fallen over at the graveside. The soft colours and fine line drawing convey a sense of the ethereal, and their intimate, pensive, scenes often recall tender moments between loved ones, emphasizing the fragility of human life. 

A select number of white-ground lekythoi attributed to the Painter of Athens are known in prominent museums, including two at the J. Paul Getty Museum, California (inv. nos 96.AE.99 and 86.AE.253), one of which also depicts a young woman and a youth attending a stele, and two in the British Museum, London (inv. nos 1894,0718.6 and 1928,0213.1).


Further literature

M. Robertson, The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1992).

J. Boardman, The History of Greek Vases (London, 2001).

J.H. Oakley, Picturing Death in Classical Athens, The Evidence of the White Lekythoi (Cambridge, 2004).

J.H. Oakley, The Greek Vase: art of the storyteller (London, 2013).


Dean Collection, London,
acquired 1975.
Published: G&M, 239, 16 June 2016, no 206.